8 Things Not To Do… (Part I)

Inspired by Troy S. Goodfellow’s list of the Eight Greatest Features he values in strategy games, I started thinking about the opposite question: what are the greatest mistakes that I hate to see done over and over again in game design? In no particular order, here are my first four:

1. Hard-core game conventions
One of the most common pitfalls for a game designer is to fear that the game is not hard enough. This fear often leads to hard-core game conventions, like restrictive save systems and unlockable content, that only put roadblocks in the way of the mainstream gamer who is just looking to have a good time. If you feel your game needs the tension of a restrictive save system, go ahead and implement it… but only as a feature of a higher difficulty level. Difficulty levels are the key to making a game accessible to both the casual and the hard-core gamer; we could never seem to add enough difficulty levels to Civ to keep our wide variety of fans happy. Trauma Center (DS) is a good example of a great game that was ruined by having no difficulty levels whatsoever. The surgery game is a brilliant use of the DS touch-screen, but the linear challenges get so hard by the fourth or fifth level that most people get hopelessly stuck after only a couple hours. Considering that the levels were timed, it wouldn’t have taken them more than a week to implement a difficulty system that simply extended the time limits at the easier settings. A Trauma Center with difficulty levels would have enjoyed similar success to Elite Beat Agents – another great touch-screen game but one not afraid to let the player start at an easy difficulty level.

2. Repetitive interface tasks
I am currently enjoying the old-school dungeon crawler Etrian Odyssey quite a bit on my DS, enough so that I can’t help day-dreaming about how much fun it would be to remake Bard’s Tale or Legacy of the Ancients for the DS. Unfortunately, the game’s interface does a terrible job of enabling the player to skip over needlessly repetitive tasks. Want to sell your loot? You have to click on every single Hare Tail in your inventory not once, but twice for confirmation! After a long excursion, this can often lead to around 100 presses of the A button when you get back to town. A simple “sell all of item X” would be an invaluable time-saver. Likewise, as a typical party-based RPG, there comes a time when your group no longer has to fear the lower-level creatures. However, for every random encounters, you still have to select ‘Attack’ and target a creature for all five of your characters even though there is literally ZERO danger to your party. (That’s ten presses of the A button for those of you keeping score at home.) A “party auto-attack” command for these battles would have saved me literally hours of play time. Always remember, your player’s time is valuable.
Fun Factor = Interesting Decisions / Actual Time Played.

(UPDATE: Yeah, so I blew this one. There is a “sell all” option in Etrian Odyssey, and it’s even shown on the interface. The point is still valid, but I targeted the wrong game.)

3. Limited play variety
No matter how good your game is, it is going to get stale after awhile. It’s a real shame when a great game doesn’t take the few extra steps necessary so that the player can mess around with the settings to create alternative play experiences. Company of Heroes is an incredible tactical RTS, a watershed moment for the genre – but there is no way to have an Axis vs. Axis battle or even a game with more than two sides. This design choice may fit the fiction of WWII, but it significantly reduced the game’s play variety. A good example of an RTS that got this right is the Age of Empires series. Not only could you mix-and-match any combination of civilizations and players and teams, but you could also design your own map scripts. I remember one interesting Age of Kings map designed by Mike Breitkreutz, a Firaxis programmer, that had almost no wood and tons of stone and gold, turning the game’s economy upside-down. You could even have multiple players controlling the same single civilization (one player could control the military, the other the economy, for example). Thus, I’ve played 2-vs-3 games of AoK where the sides with 2 civs was actually controlled by 4 players (and guess which side won?!?) These simple variations probably doubled the life-span of AoK amongst my group of friends.

4. Too much stuff
The temptation to pile extra units and buildings and whatnot onto to an already complete design is strong. Indeed, I have seen many people describe games as simply a collection of stuff (“18 Weapons! 68 Monsters! 29 Levels!”) Needless to say, this is a wrong-headed approach. A game design is a collection of interesting decisions, as Sid would say, and the “stuff” in the game is there not to fill space but to let you execute decisions. Games can provide too few options for the player but – more commonly – games provide too many. How many is just right? That’s simple enough to answer, it’s 12! (it’s definitely not 42…) OK, obviously there is no magic number, but 12 is a good figure to keep in mind. It’s an excellent rule-of-thumb for how many different options a player can keep in his or her mind before everything turns to mush. It’s the number Blizzard uses to make sure their RTS’s don’t get too complex. StarCraft averaged 12 units per side. So did WarCraft 3 (not counting heroes). And you can bet your bottom dollar that StarCraft 2 is going to be in that neighborhood as well. In fact, Blizzard has already announced that, for the sequel, they will be removing some of the old units to make room for the new ones.

Next time: pirates, modders, and black boxes…

24 thoughts on “8 Things Not To Do… (Part I)

  1. Actually, you can sell all “item X” by pressing “Y button” in the shop. And you can just press and hold “A button” for the attack command.

  2. Thanks, both of those shortcuts are now saving me tons of time… is the sell all command in the manual? I don’t think I’ve ever cracked a DS game manual.

    Hmmm, I’ll have to try to think of a better example. Any ones from Civ4 spring to mind? (I should pay the cost for condemning Etrian Odyssey too soon…)

  3. Dear Soren Johnson:

    I have a question for you! I suppose you have played the more alternative civ games from the civilization series, such as colonization and Alpah Centauri! Some concepts from civilization, such as a commodity-based economy, and SMAC, such a extremely flexible unit production, were very impressive, but they don’t do have been implemented on the core civilization series! Why wasn’t been possible? According to your vision of game design, what are the problems of these concepts to be perfeclty implemented on a series like civilization?

  4. Where I said “civilization”, in relation for commodity-based economy, I mean “colonization”. I have another question: If both intersting features could have been implemented for first time on the main series, what type of advice you would like to suggest to your successor as a civilization series lead designer on how to implemented those features I asked you above on Civ 5?

  5. An interesting post, Soren.

    You’re spot-on with your analysis of CoH and AoK. Having been in the AoK community for a long time, it never ceased to amaze me how the vast majority of players seemed to play an infinite amount of 1 vs. 1 games on Arabia, a very open map provoking as much conflict as possible. Okay, it leads to quick games and thus is good for competitive play – I get it. But come on, why not use the other possibilities?

    The inability to play Axis vs. Axis in CoH amazed me after I got the game. You can throw into a category of bad design decisions, but I think it really stands out by itself. By the way, looks like every Firaxis employee played AoK and CoH at some point 🙂

    I think, though, you got your fourth point wrong. Well, not wrong, mislabeled – piling too much stuff into a game is a separate problem in itself that I do not think can be called “too much complexity”. Depending on the game, it’s useless features, or bloat, or unfun features.

    Too much complexity is adding concepts that work in a complex way without contributing fun decisions or having other side effects. That’s the biggest danger Civ games face in their design. SMAC was a “good” example. It had some concepts, like continent-shape altering terraforming that rarely gave you interesting decisions, or supply crawlers that absolutely couldn’t be used by the AI. I still think that Paradox games suffer from too much complexity (yes, they’re aimed at a very niche market), understanding many concepts essentially requires a calculator and knowledge of formulas.

    And I think we can all agree black boxes in games are bad – looking forward to your take on it.

  6. I think you’re right Solver – I think I’ll go back and relabel my fourth point. I had a slightly different point in my mind when I wrote my outline…

  7. In addition to that, I could only wish that marketing people understood that point. Games are still often marketed through the amount of stuff. Looking at my Civ4 box – “new land, sea and air units and loads of new civic options”, quite clearly talking about quantity. Or look at the Firaxis site’s page for BtS. First bullet points about the game are: more new units & techs, more scenarios, more civilizations, more leaders – all these “more” points are listed before the “new” points like corporations and espionage, and before the “improved” points like the AI.

    I suppose you actually have some reliable statistics unlike me, but it’s my impression anyway that many people are content to buy games just for the promise of “more stuff”. Oh well… *sigh*

  8. I think expansion packs are somewhat different than a new game design. It’s rather unavoidable that you add more in an expansion pack. You absolutely cannot go back and alter the original game mechanic the way you could in a sequel. The core game must still play the same way so your only option is really to add stuff.

  9. That need not be true at all. As an example, the latest Civ4 expansion, Beyond the Sword. Yeah, it adds more stuff, as any expansion does, but it does also change some of the core mechanics (completely reworking espionage, rewriting much of the AI) or add new gameplay mechanics. A good part of the expansion is just more units, buildings and stuff, but an even bigger part is new or reworked mechanics. Admittedly, that’s rare for an expansion.

  10. On point number 3, I’d just say that some people prefer to master a single game type and get their enjoyment out of tiny variations deep within each replay.

    Frankly, I don’t really understand those people — I’m with you. I mix things every single time I play. I love playing a brand new War 3 custom map with a group of people, when nobody knows the rules, victory conditions, or even if it’s cooperative or competitive.

    Would you consider someone that plays a lot of chess a gamer who enjoys the limited play variability of number 3? It’s the same board with the same rules every single time. If you play for awhile, there’s a good chance the beginning of the game is just a memorized opening. Yet people seem to really like it. I’m always the guy pushing to mix up the starting positions of the pieces on the board, or tweak the rules, etc. Maybe it’s a new generation of gamer vs the old.

  11. Point 4 on “too much stuff” is definitely the most controversial. It’s a topic you could write literally books and books upon: how much is too much? Why is it bad to give players more of what they like? I’d love to hear more of your thoughts on this one, Soren.

  12. It’s good to say what I’m sure many of us in the gaming community have felt/known for a while: games can become tasks of meaningless micromanagement and pointless battles if we simply “cram stuff in”. The quote used in Civ4 comes to mind: “The engineer knows he is done, not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take a away”. And I think this applies to game design as well. Tabletop games are especially sensitive to complexity as the player must enforce the mechanics/interface. (A powerful microprocessor can process complex equations…but do you need them? Can the the player who is trying to optimize their results understand the game mechanics without a BS in Math/CS?)

    Two comments. First,
    “Fun Factor = Interesting Decisions / Actual Time Played.” pertains only to strategy games. I’m happy playing tennis outside without all that many strategic decisions.

    Secondly, when Trauma Center was ported to the Wii (the only version I own), they added a difficulty rating. I feel cheap playing on easy sometimes, but it’s nice not to be stuck; I can always go back and try again on normal if I want.

    Once again, great post.


  13. James, you’re saying:

    “”Fun Factor = Interesting Decisions / Actual Time Played.” pertains only to strategy games. I’m happy playing tennis outside without all that many strategic decisions.”

    I think it can be extended to most, if not all, computer games (I’m sure Soren wasn’t talking about tennis or football). Just substitute “interesting decisions” for something else as appropriate. For shooters, it’d be “interesting levels / time played”. For sports simulation games, it’d be “interesting games / time played” and so on.

  14. I think decisions are not always logical like “A or B”. There’s a lot of decisions involved in sports, and indeed sports players are very intelligent at what they do. You’d be stupid to just be chasing the ball. You’d be smart to predict where the ball will go and think of ways to get a few steps ahead of your opponent. It’s just so physical and instinctual, you might not even notice how smart it is.

    I think “interesting decisions / actual time played” is a pretty good metric.

    (The real question is — what’s interesting? To me, interesting is when X beats Y in situation A, but Y beats X in situation B. If X always beats Y, that’s not interesting.)

  15. [quote] I still think that Paradox games suffer from too much complexity (yes, they’re aimed at a very niche market), understanding many concepts essentially requires a calculator and knowledge of formulas.[/quote]

    I have to disagree with this. Granted, I might be the ‘niche’ market you’re referring to, but in no way do Paradox games require a calculator or knowledge of formulas in order to be enjoyed. It is true that knowing some of the underlying mechanics not explained in the manual aid one’s gameplay, and if you want to seriously compete in a _competitive_ multiplayer game, you’ll certainly want to understand these nuances, but it’s really not _necessary_ to enjoy a single player game, nor in a friendly multiplayer game.

    And you pick things up as you play, but even when I first picked them up, they were never not fun because I didn’t understand a game mechanic. Just because battles in HoI1/2 are complex in their calculation, doesn’t mean I need to know exactly how battles are precisely resolved.

    *shrug* Sorry to harp on it, but Eu2, CK, Victoria, HoI, and HoI2 are probably 5 of my favorite 20 games of all time, up there with Civ2, MoO2, SMAC, Colonization, XCOM, and other classics, and I’d hate to see anyone put off of them because they were ‘too complicated.’ What’s a few hour learning curve when the game offers thousands of hours of replay?

  16. Flynn: I think play variability is simply a game design innovation made much, much easier by computers. There are some older games that encouraged variability (like dealer-call poker), but it’s really an advance that came of age with video games. Not that this ability invalidates what makes chess fun, just like film’s broader range doesn’t obsolete good drama.

  17. I. I really agree with the problem here: games that are inaccessible to the mainstream keep gaming marginalised. Then again, I like very complex games myself, but selling a game to me and my geeky friends is not going to make for a commercial success, nor help bring gaming into the mainstream.

    Fixating on save/load is a mistake, I think(not a mistake that you have made, I add, but one many do make): the whole issue has become so ‘standard’ that designers have stopped thinking about it. Peter Molyneux says he is going to revisit the matter for Fable 2 and have no death, which implies no repetitive saving. We will see.

    2. God, yes. How often do we see terrible interfaces? It is not as if there are not plenty of good ones for people to look at. Sigh.

    3. I think this rather depends on the type of game. Some games (RTS and the like) are meant to be played often -if they do not have replayability then they fall down, but other types of games (often rpgs or ‘interactive stories’) are only really meant to be played once.

    4. Again, some games do not become more complex with lots of ‘gear’ in them, like equipment in RPGS (which often governs choices or just helps you feel like you are getting tougher as you play). Over complexity comes from a whole lot of different sources – Europa Universalis and its friends show us this in some detail. I am, like you, a little tired of games that portray themselves as great because they have ‘insert large number’ of ‘insert thing they think is great’ in them.

  18. First point is a bit daft when you advocate Etrian Odyssey, one of the most refreshingly uncompromising experiences in recent memory, right after it. If the developers were to follow your point retrospectively the game would have five blind-choice difficulty levels (“Welcome to our game! Would you like our single playthrough game to be VERY HARD or MEDIUM HARD?”) or, even better, the modern wonder/embarassment of a difficulty level that scales with you.

    Ten years ago you’d be on the money, but games like Trauma Center are the minority these days. The disease of modern development is safety padding games for the stupid, impatient and perpetually indifferent majority in the name of pleasing all of the people just long enough for them to buy the game and within a couple of hours store it in a dusty cupboard next to a hundred other pulse-deadening digital sycophants.

  19. I hate dynamic difficulty scaling and thinks its a terrible idea for RPG’s. (It’s great for games to show you areas early that are way too hard as a taste, so that you feel like you’ve accomplished something when you can handle them 20 levels later…) However, I WOULD like to try making an RPG that had a lot of user settings so one could adjust the grindiness, save system, etc. The key is letting people readjust if they’d like to. RPG’s are the ultimate epic single-player experience, so I don’t know why we don’t let the player sit in the driver seat.

  20. I’ve always felt that a game that offers too much customization ends up sacrificing balance. Beyond a certain number of options, there just aren’t enough development resources to make the game work for all of them.

    I’ve also felt that customization without sensible defaults is a cop out. To me, it suggests that the designer/developer didn’t think about how the game should be played… and unable to figure out how to make a feature work properly, they just let players decide what features to include.

  21. Need it be necessary to eliminate features in order to reduce overload? Why not just have about 12 features available easily, with more available for those who want to dig down. I’m thinking like regular command buttons and advanced command buttons for example. Or like maybe having regular units that you get with the tech tree techs and specialized UU type units that you can get if you research dead end techs. For example, get swordsman for Iron Working, but have an option of various swordsman alterntive units that you can research after Iron Working just to get that one UU. Or a game with standard units that you can happily play with, but if you want to get into some design screen its there though entirely optional. Thus you can have your cake and eat it too.

  22. It is true that knowing some of the underlying mechanics not explained in the manual aid one’s gameplay,

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